India summons envoy after US criticises Delhi chief minister’s arrest

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India has summoned a top US diplomat after Washington warned it to ensure a “fair, transparent and timely legal process” for a senior opposition leader jailed just weeks ahead of parliamentary elections.

The US state department had said it was “closely watching” events after Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, was arrested last week in connection with a long-running corruption investigation.

“We take strong objection to the remarks,” India’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “In diplomacy, states are expected to be respectful of the sovereignty and internal affairs of others.”

Local broadcasters showed the senior US diplomat, Gloria Berbena, entering India’s foreign ministry.

It is the first time a sitting chief minister has been arrested, and has drawn accusations that Narendra Modi’s government is targeting opposition parties before the national election beginning on 19 April.

Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi party (AAP) came to power in the city in 2015 on the back of an anti-corruption movement, and had repeatedly come into the crosshairs of the national government, which has increasingly shown itself intolerant of dissent.

In Washington, when asked about the Indian reaction, a state department spokesman, Matthew Miller,also mentioned the main opposition Congress party’s complaints about the freezing of bank accounts over alleged late filing of tax returns.

“We are also aware of the Congress party’s allegations that tax authorities have frozen some of their bank accounts in a manner that will make it challenging to effectively campaign in the upcoming elections,” Miller said. “We encourage fair, transparent and timely legal processes for each of these issues.”

The US has generally been careful in remarks about India, which it sees as a growing partner, despite concerns voiced by rights groups about the country’s direction under Modi, a Hindu nationalist heavily favoured to win a new mandate.

Last week, Germany also raised its concerns about the arrest of Kejriwal, a key leader in an opposition alliance formed to compete against Modi in elections beginning next month.

The foreign ministry said it had also summoned Germany’s deputy ambassador on Saturday.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who was arrested last Thursday in a corruption inquiry, seen in a file shot. Photograph: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

The AAP is part of a coalition of 27 parties that have united to fight against Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government in the election under the acronym “India”.

In a court hearing on Friday last week, investigators described Kejriwal as the “kingpin” and “key conspirator” in the case known as the Delhi liquor scam, involving accusations his government received kickbacks while handing out liquor licenses to private companies.

He has denied the charges, and supporters say his arrest is meant to sideline challengers to Modi before next month’s election – accusations the foreign ministry rejected.

“India’s legal processes are based on an independent judiciary which is committed to objective and timely outcomes,” the ministry added.

Party leaders have vowed that Kejriwal will remain as chief minister and continue to govern behind bars.

The financial investigation agency that arrested Kejriwal, the Enforcement Directorate, is under central government control. Government critics say it is one of several agencies that have been weaponised against the BJP’s political opposition. The directorate has launched investigations into at least four other state chief ministers or their family members.

Nearly a billion Indians will vote to elect a new government in six-week-long parliamentary elections starting on 19 April – the largest democratic exercise in the world.

Many analysts see Modi’s re-election as a foregone conclusion, partly due to the resonance of his assertive Hindu-nationalist politics with members of the country’s majority faith.

Additional reporting by Hannah Ellis-Petersen

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